Thirty-eight years ago when Al Grounds was called to ministry, he never imagined a church dispute would plunge him into a battle so destructive it would nearly take his life. But it did.
Al was a gifted evangelist — it was never his intention to enter the pastorate. But after months of pursuit, _____ Church* finally persuaded Al to accept their invitation as pastor. Under his leadership, the church grew exponentially, drawing hundreds from all over western Kentucky and Tennessee. People drove for miles to attend.
Then, amazingly, one disgruntled woman maneuvered an attack that plummeted the church into an intense war. The root of her anger? She didn't want people from outside her community coming to her church. Because Al's preaching drew the people, she greatly resented him and wanted him out. "She decided to do all she could to get me and the 'outsiders' out and rallied support for her actions within the church," Al painfully recalls. "It took her almost two years, but she did it."
In the middle of this dispute, 13 church members sued Al and his deacons for $140,000 for violating their "rights," and the church leadership found themselves fighting a 24-hour battle of threatening phone calls and harassment. The casualty rate continued to rise, tearing the church apart; one deacon killed himself. One man even pulled a knife on Al at the end of a Sunday morning service — the perpetrator screaming, "You deserve to die for what you've done to this church!"
The two-year attack claimed Al's ministry and marriage. Battle-weary, wounded, jobless and alone, Al struggled through a wilderness lasting several years. He strained to make some sense out of what happened, running the gamut of grief and emotions: "I went through a period of devastation, which led to a period of bitterness and resentment. There were even times I dreamed about revenge."
After a few years, Al started going back to church, trusting that God would somehow redeem the broken rubble of his life, and the bitterness slowly began to dissipate. "I kept [returning to] Romans 8:28, which reads, 'And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.' "
Within a short while, Al was asked to take over a Sunday school class, which was "the start of healing for me," he remembers, "and shortly after that, I was asked to pastor again."
Out from the ashes, God gave Al a passion for helping other pastors through the same kind of pain he had endured. He never wanted another pastor to feel as alone in battle as he did. So 14 years ago after he remarried, Al and his wife, Phyllis, founded Restored Ministries based in Smyrna, Tenn., — an outreach that literally hand -delivers a message of healing and restoration to congregations in every denomination who have been hurt by church conflict. Together, they form a conciliatory ally with embattled pastors and churches, standing with them in the crossfire. Not a day goes by that the Groundses don't minister to hurting pastors and their wives.
According to Al, 99 percent of conflicts revolve around some fleshly issue; rarely are they about doctrine. Phyllis agrees, "Satan hates us and doesn't want to see churches go forward. If we give him a crack in the door through troubled relationships, he's going to elbow his way in and come in full force, destroying whatever he can, so we have to be watchful. We have to arm ourselves with God's Word and prayer, realizing that we are engaged in a constant war, especially since we're on the front lines of ministry."
While there is no magical formula to apply to every church conflict, there are some basic principles the Groundses use in their ministry.
Take immediate action. "Unsettled conflict results in people warring against each other and eventually choosing sides," Al says. "The moment you sense something is wrong, you need to call in the parties involved and sit them down to work it out. When you wait, problems persist and grow. When it's left alone, it becomes like blood poisoning, eventually filtering through the entire church."
Get help. Many pastors try to go it alone. As a result, they become depressed and hopeless. "We come in at any level of conflict to help work through it. We assess the situation, then guide the congregation and leadership through the restoration process," Al says. "The average person doesn't want his church to split, so we stay as long as it takes to work through whatever needs working through."
While helping churches in conflict, the Groundses have seen God do the impossible, including reuniting split churches, restoring pastors and their wives to effective ministry . . . even turning the hardest heart to repentance.
Pray. Prayer is a key weapon in every aspect of the Groundses' ministry. Phyllis teaches a four-hour, Scripture-based seminar showing a church how they can effectively pray for their pastor and his family , and the importance of church etiquette. She lays a critical foundation to help congregations solve existing problems, as well as prevent further conflict.
Take preventative measures. In addition, the Groundses' ministry is available to churches for prevention. "People think that if there is no conflict in their church, they don't need Restored Ministries," Phyllis says. "That's not true. A lot of qualities in our ministry provide preventative medicine for churches."
"It is our desire to approach a church before a potential problem arises — to bring a mending with difficult people before the tear gets out of control," Al says. Many times, just the telling of Al's story alone , is enough to make the troublemakers leave.
Another aspect of prevention is education. Phyllis says people in the church are often ignorant of the office of pastor, what his duty is, what his call is, and God's command to respect pastors. So the Groundses educate church members on how they can honor their pastors.
As Al works with the casualties, he reminds pastors that they don't have to fall in battle, and they don't have to leave ministry. According to Al, "The wounded soldier who has been healed and put back into battle is a far better fighter than the one who has never had a scratch. We desire to help put the wounded soldier back into battle, healed and whole." And as with Al, God will use their wounds as common ground for helping others who have been hurt in ministry.
Armed with the restorative power of Christ, the Groundses are standing strong in the crossfire with pastors and churches — and together they are winning the battle.
Ever feel like you need to wear a mask to cover up who you are? Are you concerned that, if people knew who you really are and how you really felt, they wouldn't understand?
One minister, two jobs and the family that's at the top of the list. The number of bivocational ministers, those in full- or part-time ministry who carry an additional job, is estimated by some researchers to be as high as 30 percent of ministers nationwide.
"You should see the church they attend," Lucille said, armed with bulletin and newsletter. Creases formed across my brow as celebration gave way to comparisons a trap that had sprung too many times.